Recording High-Quality Audio on your iOS
Date: November 15, 2013
The iPad or iPhone are, out of the box, perfectly capable "home movie" devices, and can create decent video or audio recordings of your ensemble with the built-in camera app. Using a combination of some basic retail accessories and a couple of workarounds, though, you can make the iPad a fairly powerful portable recording and editing station. Over the next three weeks, we'll explore some of the ways to expand the capabilites of an iPad for recording the kind of high-quality audio that you'd like to use with your ensemble. This week, we'll start with the hardware.
Rules of Thumb (or No-Thumb)
If you have no money to invest in this project, but want to be a little more reliable in your recording, consider this quick tip: remember the first time you ever got a small film camera? How long did it take before you got your first pictures back with your thumb or a finger covering part of the lens? With digital cameras, it's easy to see when your finger is in the way, but since we don't listen to digital audio as we're recording it, it can be hard to know when background noise is creeping into your recording. An additional challenge is that most people aren't entirely sure where the microphone on your iPad is.
(There it is!)
Hard cases for the iPad tend not to move around much, but soft cases do, and they can cause handling noise to appear in your recording. To ensure that your recording is as background-noise-free as possible, consider removing it from a soft case, or finding a way to prop it up out of your hands (resting it on a table, for example).
Violating the $0 clause from above, there are now attachments which allow you to mount your iPad on a music stand or microphone boom, which would allow you to position the device ideally for recording. As with any sound system, though, if you have $1 to spend, $2 of it should go to...
When the iPad first came out, one of the loudest initial criticisms of it was that it didn't have a USB port. Critics went so far as to way that without a way to expand the capabilities of the device via USB, the iPad was doomed from launch. Apple did make it possible to expand the device, though-- they just wanted you to have to buy their hardware to do it. The music industry has caught up in a major way to the designs of Apple's proprietary port, and there are dozens of iPad-specific microphones on the market now which use either the 30-pin or Lightning connectors (see below). Many of them are designed for podcasting and may not be sonically ideal for music, but there are also some which closely emulate our more traditional vocal mics.
One additional layer of complexity-- iPads now have two types of ports on the market (as do iPhones): the 30-pin or the Lightning. 30-pin has been the staple of iOS devices since their invention. The iPad 2, still available to buy new, uses the 30-pin port. All of the newest generations of iPad use the Lightning port. When I refer to ports henceforth, I'll assume that the two are interchangable, but if you are purchasing a microphone or accessory, make sure that you are purchasing the correct version for your device. I'll point out any significant differences between 30-pin and Lightning when necessary.
(30-Pin on the left, Lightning on the right. h/t to gottabemobile.com)
Your choices for microphones fall into two broad categories: USB mics which will work with iPads, and dedicated iPad mics. Dedicated mics like the Apogee (Lightning-only) or the Rode iXY (30-pin) are designed to work natively with the iPad or iPhone, and provide significantly higher-quality area recording sound than the built-in microphone.
USB mics work by taking advantage of a quirk in Apple's design: they began manufacturing a device called the Camera Connection Kit which allowed users to plug in USB cameras through Apple's adapter. These kits are available in the 30-pin or Lightning versions, and were immediately jumped upon by all manners of iOS aficionados as a way to connect every type of USB device on the planet, including USB mics. The catch is that this is, in its heart, a workaround relying on a piece of hardware is was neither built for nor marketed to handle the kind of data that live audio recording takes, sometimes there are errors. Your mileage may vary, but there are enough cautionary tales of crashed apps or laggy audio to be wary of this solution and steer towards one of the mics designed to work directly with the device.
Beyond the Microphone
Mention must be paid to the next level up in your iPad recording options, which is a full Digital Audio interface. Most of the consumer-grade audio manufacturers have entered this field with an interface designed to connect to either the Lightning or 30-pin ports which allows for audio and MIDI in/out, may have preamps on board, and likely has both XLR and 1/4" ports available (including 1/4" headphone jack). These range in price anywhere from $100-$1500+. For recording a choral ensemble, some of these features like MIDI may not be relevant, but having dual 1/4" jacks to record a proper stereo field, being able to use your existing microphones, and having a preamp built-in dramatically expand the potential of the iPad for recording live audio.
In the next two weeks, we'll take a look at what to do once it's in the iPad-- apps and workflows which allow to you edit and publish the audio directly from the device so that you can record and share your audio with your ensemble or a wider audience.
Do you have experience working with any of these devices? What do you use to record with your iPad? Join the conversation in the comments below!